Are you building a Squarespace website in multiple languages? Wondering how to target your content to those different languages or regions? Online forums and communities show there are many multilingual and multi-country sites being built on the Squarespace platform, but very little discussion about related SEO best practices.

To help serve the right content to the right users, your website can make use of strategies suggested by Google. This guide covers industry standards for multi-language websites, international SEO, and how to implement hreflang on Squarespace


Multilingual Websites & Multi-regional Websites

A multilingual website offers content in more than one language. A multi-regional or international website targets users in different countries. The process of targeting content to users in a single location is called geotargeting. And of course, a website can be both multilingual and multi-regional. 

 International SEO

Google's Guidelines for Optimizing Your Site

If you go to the effort of translating your website into multiple languages, then we can assume your goal is for Google Search to return pages that match a searcher’s language. When building your site, Google recommends that you:

  • Make your page language obvious by using a single language for content and navigation on each page — avoid side-by-side translations.

  • Use different URLs for each language version of a page and let users choose the page language. Why is this preferred over using cookies or browser settings to adjust the language on the page? Google says dynamically changed content or automatic redirections based on language settings can prevent search engines from viewing all the variations of your site.

  • Tell Google about different language versions of your content with the hreflang attribute.

If you plan to geotarget content, you have a few options:

  1. When targeting an entire site, you can use the International Targeting option in Google Search Console to specify the target country — remember, do not use this setting if your site targets more than a single country.

  2. Another common practice is to use locale-specific URLs to target certain audiences — for example, using a country-specific TLD (ccTLD) like .uk will automatically target your site to the UK market.

  3. And again, you can specifically target pages to certain locations by using the hreflang attribute.

Google guidelines on how to structure your URLs:

 
 How to structure URLs for geotargeting
 

When deciding whether a subdomain, subfolder, or ccTLD is right for your site, consider:

  • Are you targeting different countries or just a multilingual community?

  • How many different languages are you targeting?

  • Will you translate content manually or use a plugin?

  • How large is your budget and staff resources?

As an example, Squarespace uses subdomains to handle their own multilingual content:

  • English: https://www.squarespace.com

  • Spanish: https://es.squarespace.com

  • French: https://fr.squarespace.com

  • German: https://de.squarespace.com

  • Portugese: https://pt.squarespace.com

  • Italian: https://it.squarespace.com

But most Squarespace users will find a subfolder type setup is an easy way to organize basic informational content, this can be accomplished by editing your URLs in Squarespace to look something like this:

  • English: https://www.example.com/en/contact

  • Spanish: https://www.example.com/es/contacto

Note, this does not create the same parent/child hierarchical relationship of Squarespace collections.

When considering which structure is best overall, Search Engine Journal states:

"...when it comes to making a decision of ccTLD vs subdomain vs subdirectory, there is hardly ever a reason to choose anything but a subdirectory. A subdirectory will rank the fastest and is the choice of many large enterprise multinational websites (e.g., Apple, Samsung, HP)."


How To Tell Google about Localized Content

Once your website is built, how does Google know which pages you’d like shown in the SERPs for various languages? Well the good news is that even without taking any further action, Google says they might find the alternate language versions of your page. If search results for your site already display as desired, then it could be hard to make a business case to implement best practices when you might not see any results from changes made.

But Google’s guidelines also state that if your content is translated into multiple languages: 

“it is usually best for you to explicitly indicate your language- or region-specific pages.”

So if you want the best chance of optimizing search results for users speaking different languages, how do you "explicitly indicate" this information to Google? The answer: hreflang markup.


What is hreflang?

Hreflang annotations tell Google about pages that are similar in content, but targeting different audiences. You can use hreflang to target audiences according to their language and (optionally) their country. 

With hreflang you are only sending a signal to Google — other SEO factors may override the hreflang markup, so make sure you are following Google's guidelines and SEO standards.

Of the three hreflang implementation methods, two stood out as options for our Squarespace template: HTML tags or a sitemap. Best practice would be to choose one method to reduce redundancy and your chance for error.

If you are working with a very large number of languages, then an XML sitemap could be the best approach to prevent weighing down code. But our client only translates content in two languages and Squarespace automatically generates an XML sitemap, so we didn't see a reason to create a separate, static hreflang sitemap. Therefore, we initially worked with the HTML tag approach.

Only pages that have equivalents in other languages need hreflang tags, standalone URLs don’t need hreflang markup.

Hreflang markup is bidirectional

Hreflang markup needs to appear on both pages. If page A links to page B, page B must link back to page A. And each page must reference itself. Thus you will always have at least two hreflang tags on a page (one that references itself and a link to an alternative page). If your hreflang markup only points one direction, then Google will consider the markup invalid.

The most common mistakes with hreflang according to Google:

  • Missing return links — Again, hreflang tags only pointing in one direction are invalid.

  • Incorrect language/region codes — Make sure you use valid codes to identify your languages and regions. Google recommends using the ISO 639-1 codes for languages and the ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 codes for countries.

  • Learn about common mistakes and misconceptions here.

Example of Hreflang Tags

If you have two versions of your site, one for the US and one for the UK, you want to make sure that people searching on google.uk find the page targeting the UK, and those searching on google.com find the page targeting the US. Hreflang tags found in both those page headers might look like this:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-us" href="http://www.example.com/usa/services/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-gb" href="http://www.example.com/uk/services/" />

How to Generate & Validate Hreflang tags

To make your job a little easier, use available tools to generate and validate hreflang tags.

When Squarespace develops a true multilingual solution, ideally it will include automatic hreflang page tagging, but currently they do not offer this feature:

 Squarespace Knowledge Base as of September 2018

Building a Squarespace Website with Multiple Languages

So how do you build a website with more than one language on Squarespace? A nonprofit client requested a dual-language site (English and Spanish) geotargeted to the United States. Currently, the Squarespace platform does not offer a multilingual solution (although they do allow you to set your site language to one of six different languages on Brine-family templates). The SS knowledge base suggests a workaround for multilingual sites, but the proposed solution did not meet our needs for a variety of reasons, including the use of a cover page.

  Visit the CSPL website to see a multilingual Squarespace example

Visit the CSPL website to see a multilingual Squarespace example

We evaluated the multilingual plugins (Multilingualizer, Bablic, Localize, etc.) mentioned in forums, but they were either overkill, cost prohibitive for a nonprofit, or did not function according to Google’s SEO best practices. That said, if you have a large number of languages to translate, then a 3rd party tool may be the best option for your business.

For our client’s bilingual website, we chose to implement Brad Good’s easy-to-follow coding solution. The approach handles the bilingual navigation and language selector, it works on any Squarespace template, and it makes use of a subdirectory URL structure. 

See our multilingual Squarespace example here.


Hreflang Tags on Squarespace

As mentioned above, after you build a site with translated and duplicated content, you can explain your intentions to Google with hreflang markup. Our client targets a bilingual community (versus different regions) — the information and purpose of their site is purely local, which is common in areas of the United States with populations speaking Spanish as a primary language. Because they aren't targeting Mexico, Spain, or other countries that speak Spanish, their hreflang tags do not need to include country code identifiers:

<link rel="alternate" href="https://www.csplaction.org/en/contact/" hreflang="en" />
<link rel="alternate" href="https://www.csplaction.org/es/contacto/" hreflang="es" />
  After submitting the sitemap and targeting the US, the Language tab looked as if it was processing the hreflang tags for days.

After submitting the sitemap and targeting the US, the Language tab looked as if it was processing the hreflang tags for days.

After adding hreflang tags to all applicable pages (in advanced page settings), we submitted the Squarespace sitemap in Google Search Console and set the International Targeting option to target users in the United States. On the “Language” tab, it seemed that Google recognized our use of hreflang tags — instead of defaulting to the standard message of “Your site has no hreflang tags”, the page was “spinning” as if it was processing the tags. Google states:

"Make sure that Google has had time to crawl your pages, then visit the Language tab on the report to see if any errors were detected."

So, we waited. The Language tab in Search Console continued to "process” for about 4 days, which is not typical of non-hreflang sites, but we ultimately received the default message: “Your site has no hreflang tags”

In August 2018, John Mueller of Google confirmed that content variations need to be crawled at least twice before Google can use hreflang annotations.

The client domain was new, so we gave it more time and waited again. But weeks later nothing had changed, so we decided to try the XML sitemap approach.


Hreflang and XML Sitemaps

  International Targeting report showing valid hreflang tags.

International Targeting report showing valid hreflang tags.

As described above, Google did not confirm the HTML hreflang tags on our site, so we approached the issue from a different angle. Because the hreflang tags already existed on our pages, we were able to quickly generate an XML sitemap with hreflang using Screaming Frog. We made a few tweaks to the sitemap, uploaded it to Squarespace, submitted it to Search Console, and within a short time Google began confirming the hreflang attributes. Success!

In a straightforward scenario, the hreflang tags in the head of the pages should have sufficed. So what happened? After reviewing Google's Data Anomalies report, there seemed to be a chance that this client's new Search Console submission simply occurred at an unfortunate time which might have interfered with processing the tags. But a more likely possibility is that the issue relates to how Squarespace handles URL canonicalization and sitemaps. Regardless, the number of hreflang tags that Google shows has steadily increased since the submission of the new sitemap with hreflang.

Note: we have not yet tested removing the tags or the sitemap (leaving just one method in place), but Google does not show any errors and search results display as expected.


Other considerations for multilingual or global websites

Representing Languages

Flags are often used to indicate various languages, but only use flags to represent languages if the content is country specific. Why?

  • Flags represent countries, not languages — a language can be spoken in more than one country.

  • Some countries have more than one official language — such as Canada.

  • Visitors might not recognize a flag or they might be confused by similar flags.

And it is best to refer to a language in its own language, for example ‘Deutsch’ instead of ‘German’. If you have a long list of languages, ordering them alphabetically can help users find their preferred language. Navigating a website in a language that is completely foreign to you can make it hard to find a language selector, so consider using an appropriate icon to help your users find the language selector.

Localization & Translations

It is important to have your text translated and localized by professional human translators familiar with your intended audience. Why? Google says automated translations might be viewed as spam because they don’t always make sense. In other words, don’t use Google Translate! If you do go this route, Google suggests blocking automatically translated pages on your site from being crawled by search engines.

Website localization does not mean a simple word-to-word translation of your existing content, it means rethinking date formats, currencies, units of measure, and other details that help you meet your customers’ needs.

Redirections

To keep your visitors happy, wherever possible make sure that they’re presented with the same (translated) page when they switch languages. Why? It can be confusing for users to have to find the page again. The Brad Good solution used above takes this into consideration. 


Ready to implement hreflang on Squarespace?

If you build a multilingual or multi-regional website, follow Google's guidelines and your efforts will help you reach your intended audience.  

Related Service // Squarespace SEO — We can help your business implement the latest best practices.

 

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